Equity & Diversity

St. Louis-Area District Delays First Day as Community Grapples With Shooting

By Evie Blad — August 13, 2014 5 min read
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This is a cross post from Rules for Engagement.

Update: Schools in Ferguson, Mo.—where police fatally shot unarmed African-American teenager Michael Brown outside an apartment complex Saturday—will postpone the first day of school until Monday, the district announced Wednesday night.

The Ferguson-Florissant school district said in a statement on its website that administrators decided to delay the first day, originally scheduled for Thursday, “in response to concerns expressed by many about continuing unrest in our community.”

The district had previously planned to stick with its original schedule, despite ongoing tensions in the area that have spurred protests and heavy police presence at night.

“The tragic events of recent days in the City of Ferguson and the surrounding areas are a concern to us as we are sure they are to all of you. To see our community suffering in this way is heartbreaking to all of us,” Lawrence W. Larrew, acting superintendent of the Ferguson-Florissant school district, wrote in a letter to parents before the district changed its plans.

Protestors are frustrated by a lack of answers about the shooting, which they cite as another example of how young black men are often treated unfairly by police and the media. While federal officials and St. Louis County police are investigating whether the officer had justifiable cause to shoot, a friend who witnessed the incident told reporters Brown was “shot like an animal.” Adding to the anger, police will not release the name of the officer who shot Brown, citing concerns for his safety.

Earlier in the week, nearby Jennings delayed its first day of school after frustrations sparked looting well into the early morning hours Monday. Ferguson-Florrisant also had delayed meet-the-teacher events scheduled for this week. The district reviewed security at its schools, and other districts in the area planned an additional police presence and counselors, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports.

“We believe as educators that restoring normalcy and welcoming our students back to school is one of the most effective things that we can do to advance the healing and rebuilding process,” Larrew wrote before the district changed its plans. “We are coordinating grief counseling and other resources to help us support our students as they return to our classrooms this Thursday, and reviewing first-day-of-school plans to provide guidance for constructive, age-appropriate discussions.”

The Ferguson-Florrisant district is no stranger to racial tension, the Post-Dispatch reported. Last year, its school board, which had no black members, suspended the district’s black superintendent, who later resigned.

Calls for “reflection and understanding”

Multiple accounts detail heavily armored police officers using tear gas and rubber bullets on protestors at night, blocking access to some streets, and relocating media from tense areas. There were two more shootings Tuesday night—a woman was injured in a drive-by shooting and police said an officer shot a man after he pointed a gun at him. It’s not clear if those incidents were in any way related to the protests.

The city released a statement asking “any groups wishing to assemble in prayer or in protest do so only during daylight hours in an organized and respectful manner” so that people won’t “co-opt peaceful protests and turn them into violent demonstrations.” President Obama also released a statement, urging Americans to “comfort each other and talk with one another in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.”

What should those “age-appropriate discussions” look like?

The Brown shooting has stirred up discussions around the country. Plenty of thoughtful people are asking how teachers, in Missouri and elsewhere, should address the incident in their classrooms. Because investigations are ongoing, it’s likely that this event will continue unfolding throughout the school year, providing many opportunities for discussion and, possibly, a topic of such interest to students that many teachers won’t be able to ignore it.

I won’t pretend to know the best way to handle things in a classroom, but I could see this being a great opportunity to practice critical reading and discussion skills with older students. That reading could either be stories about the Michael Brown shooting or broader reading about race or racial disparities in the United States. In the case of opinion pieces, do students agree or disagree with conclusions? In the case of objective news stories, what context does this add to their understanding of the shooting? Here are some resources:

Have your schools addressed major national and local events in their classrooms? What worked?

Top photo: A demonstrator throws a tear gas container back at tactical officers, who worked to break up a group of bystanders on Chambers Road and West Florissant in St. Louis Wednesday morning. Nights of unrest have vied with calls for calm in a St. Louis suburb where an unarmed black teenager was killed by police, while the community is still pressing for answers about the weekend shooting. (Robert Cohen /St. Louis Post-Dispatch/AP)

Bottom photo: A group of young protestors join a gathering with Michael Brown’s family and Rev. Al Sharpton at Greater St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church. (Chris Lee /St. Louis Post-Dispatch/AP)

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A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.

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